Arugula, Fennel, and Orange Salad
Seared Scallops with Butter Sauce over Tarragon Rice
White Chocolate–Raspberry Crème Brûlée Tartlets
Fran was the one who first suggested a New Year’s Eve dinner party. But it was Will’s idea to serve a different course every hour, on the hour, counting down to midnight.
“Then, for the last course, we can have something like cherries jubilee, which we’ll light up at the stroke of midnight,” Will said.
“Cherries jubilee?” Fran repeated doubtfully. Cherries jubilee reminded her of fusty country club dining rooms, the sort that were always decorated in shades of mauve and served the food buffet-style, with carving stations where thick slabs of chewy, flavorless roast beef were hacked off for each diner.
“Or something else that we can serve flambé,” Will said. “Bananas Foster? Baked Alaska?”
“What’s this sudden fascination with desserts that are on fire?” Fran asked, paging through The French Laundry Cookbook. A few of the pages were stained with what looked like splattered olive oil. Fran had a habit of propping cookbooks too close to the stove when she cooked.
“Just think: The clock strikes midnight, it’s the first minute of the New Year, and we celebrate by turning off all the lights and serving a flaming dessert.”
“I was thinking more along the lines of white chocolate–raspberry crème brûlée tartlets,” Fran said. “But I like the idea of serving a course every hour, on the hour. Do you think that would be hard to pull off?”
“I’ll help,” Will said, sealing this promise with a chaste kiss on Fran’s cheek. Then, whistling cheerily, he headed off to the garage to continue work on his latest combat robot, leaving Fran to plan everything herself.
Fran paged through her extensive collection of cookbooks, looking for inspiration, while she considered the guest list. Jaime and Mark Wexler. Audrey, obviously, although she was going to be defensive if she was the only single person at a party of couples. Fran tried to think of any other single people she knew—and if it was a man, it couldn’t be someone Audrey suspected Fran was trying to set her up with, another area on which her best friend was ridiculously touchy—and then she thought of her next-door neighbor Leland McCullogh. He was a widower in his seventies—which meant he was about thirty years older than the others—but Leland was witty and charming and would make an excellent addition to the dinner party.
Fran stood and padded barefoot to the garage, where Will sat hunched in concentration over his workbench.
“What do you think of inviting the Wexlers, Audrey, and Leland from next door to our New Year’s Eve dinner party? Six is a good number, right?” Fran asked.
Will didn’t give any indication that he had heard her.
“Will?” Fran said.
“Hmm?” Will said, still not looking up.
“I started a grease fire in the kitchen. The house is going up in flames. What should I do?” Fran asked.
“The fire extinguisher is right over there,” Will said, waving vaguely toward the shelving that lined the back wall of the garage. “See? I’m not ignoring you.”
“Very convincing,” Fran said. “What do you think of the guest list?”
“Sounds fine,” Will said. He picked up a hunk of metal—part of his latest combat robot, Fran assumed, although Will’s creations always looked more like metal boxes than C-3PO—and secured it in a vise.
“Can you think of anyone else we should invite?” Fran asked.
“Nope.” Will picked up a screwdriver and held it over the robot like a surgeon contemplating his first cut.
Fran waited a beat or two, but Will didn’t give any indication that he was going to join the conversation they were having. She turned.
“Coop,” Will said.
“What?” Fran turned back.
“Coop,” Will said again. “Didn’t I tell you? He’s in town.”
“Wait. What? Coop’s here? In our town?” Fran asked. An image of Coop—sexy Coop with his tanned face and pale gray eyes, the hair on his arms bleached white from hours spent out on his boat—flashed through her thoughts.
“Yes,” Will said. “I thought I told you.”
“No,” Fran said. “What’s he doing here?”
“He’s living here. He rented an apartment on the beach.”
“Okay, put down the screwdriver, and start from the beginning,” Fran said.
Will looked up, blinked at her, and set the screwdriver down on his workbench.
“Coop’s living here,” he said again.
“Yes, you said that. Now I want to hear the rest of it. What is Coop doing here? When did he move here? Why haven’t you told me about this before?” Fran asked.
“He’s editing some film he’s working on. I think it has something to do with coastal tides. They shot it up near Nova Scotia. He said it was freezing, and that he was glad to be back in Florida,” Will said.
“I can imagine. But why is he here in Ocean Falls? What happened to Miami?”
“He sold his condo before he left for the shoot, so he decided to rent up here while he’s in postproduction. I thought I told you all of this,” Will added, looking longingly at his robot.
“No,” Fran said. “You didn’t. How long is he in town for?”
“No idea. Indefinitely, I think.”
“We should have him over.”
“That’s what I was suggesting. Invite him to the dinner party.”
“Sure, why not?”
“Wouldn’t he think a dinner party was boring and suburban?”
“No way. We’re hip and cool,” Will said. But that was just it, Fran thought. They were not hip and cool. They didn’t live in Brooklyn, and have tattoos, and name their children Fifi or Zola. Will was a city planner, Fran was a physical therapist, and they spent their weekends grocery shopping, mowing the lawn, and chauffeuring their two daughters to soccer and dance practices. “What about Audrey?”
“What about her?”
“If we invite her and we invite Coop, she’ll jump to the conclusion that I’m trying to set her up with him,” Fran said.
“That’s because you’re always trying to set her up.”
“No, I’m not.”
“The last time we were at the grocery store, you accosted some guy in the deli meat line—”
“I did not accost him!”
“—and asked him if he would be interested in going out with Audrey,” Will finished.
“He wasn’t a stranger. His son was on the same soccer team as Rory, back when they were little. I just couldn’t remember his name. We all called him Cute Single Dad Guy,” Fran said.
“Except now he’s married,” Will said.
“How was I supposed to know that? I haven’t seen the man in five years,” Fran said.
“He was wearing a wedding band.”
“Whatever. Anyway, Audrey needs a little push to get back out there. Ryan’s been gone for, what, seven years now?”
“Wow, has it been that long?”
“Yeah, it has. Remember? Iris was in first grade, and so was at school, but Rory was just a toddler. I had the hardest time finding a babysitter to watch her while we went to the funeral.”
“I don’t remember that,” Will said.
“I do. Anyway, she’s been alone for a long time. Long enough.”
“Maybe Audrey’s not ready for another relationship. You can’t prescribe how long a person is allowed to grieve for.”
“Yes, I can. Seven years is objectively too long. If you died, I’d give it a year, tops, before I started dating,” Fran said.
“Wow, a whole year? I’m touched,” Will said.
“What do we do about Coop and Audrey?”
“Why do we have to do anything about them? We invite them both, and if Audrey doesn’t want to come because there’s a single man there, that’s her choice. Unless . . . wait.” Will held up one hand. “I just had the most brilliant idea.”
“Uh-oh,” Fran said.
“No, wait for it. We tell Audrey that Coop is gay.”
Fran blinked, nonplussed. “Why would we do that?”
“Because that way Audrey won’t think she’s being set up. And it will be an excellent way to get back at Coop for telling Kelly Feinstein that I lost both testicles in a freak BB gun accident so she’d go out with him instead of me,” Will said.
“What? When did that happen?” Fran asked.
“Tenth grade. But it’s never too late for payback,” Will said.
“I don’t know,” Fran said. “Won’t Audrey be able to tell he’s not gay?”
“How would she?”
“Coop is just very . . .” Fran stopped. She could feel her cheeks go warm.
Adjectives that could be applied to Coop began flashing through Fran’s thoughts. Hilarious. Flirtatious. Incredibly sexy.
“Heterosexual,” Fran said.
“No, trust me, she’ll never figure it out.” Will was eyeing his robot with impatience.
“Should I call Coop? Or do you want to?”
“Sure. Whatever you want,” Will said, his screwdriver again hovering in the air, ready to get to work.
Sensing that she was losing his attention, Fran went back into the house.
Coop, she thought. It had been a long time since she’d thought about him. There had been a time when she’d thought about Coop too much. And one day, back when she and Will were first married, when something had almost happened between them.
They’d been out on Coop’s boat—he always seemed to have a boat, even back then, when they were in their twenties and still had to scrounge for beer money—and it must have been summer or early fall, because Fran remembered that it had been hot. So hot everyone had stripped down to their bathing suits, and both Will and Coop’s date—he’d dated so many women over the years that Fran couldn’t remember this one’s name or even what she’d looked like—had drifted off, lulled to sleep by the combination of sun, alcohol, and the gentle rocking of the boat.
While the others napped, Fran and Coop hung out in the stern of the boat, chatting lazily. Fran could still remember that she’d been wearing a turquoise bikini—this was back in the pre-child days, when she’d had the figure to carry off a two-piece—and her long, curly hair was loose around her shoulders. Coop had suddenly leaned over and fingered one of her corkscrew ringlets, drawing it out and then letting it spring back. It usually annoyed her when anyone did that, but Coop’s touch had been incredibly erotic. Fran, who had never once considered cheating on Will, suddenly found herself holding her breath, hoping beyond hope that Coop would move even closer, that he would lean forward, that his lips would touch against hers. . . .
But instead, Coop sat back and gazed at her with knowing gray-blue eyes. Coop’s features, taken apart, were all wrong—the planes of his cheeks were too sharp, the jaw was too prominent, the nose was too long, the lips too thin. But put together, it all worked.
It was the sort of face you never tired of looking at, Fran thought.
“It’s too bad Will met you first,” Coop said quietly. “You’re really more my type than his.”
Despite the skittering leap her heart took at those words, Fran had laughed. “I didn’t know you had a type. There seems to be quite a bit of variety in the women you date.”
“True. But I’ve always had a soft spot for smart asses. And for women with blue eyes and dark hair. Especially long, curly hair,” Coop said softly.
Fran’s smile slipped away, and the joke she would usually have made stuck in her throat. Her hair, which she’d always considered one of the great annoyances of her life, with its unruly curls that never looked good in a ponytail, suddenly made her feel beautiful. Sexy. Desirable. She and Coop just sat there, gazing at each other, possibility humming between them.
Will had woken up then, stretching and sighing. And just like that, the spell was broken. Coop leaned back on his elbows, away from Fran.
Will sat up, blinking in the sunlight. “Anyone want to go for a swim?” he called out.
Fran watched as Will and Coop jumped overboard together, plunging into the aquamarine water and bobbing up a few moments later. They’d called to her to join them, along with the nameless girlfriend, who had also woken up by then, but both women had demurred. The girlfriend said she wanted to work on her tan, while Fran knew that the salt water would cause her mascara to run and her hair to puff and frizz. She didn’t want Coop to see her looking waterlogged, her nose red, her hair bedraggled. She wanted him to think of her as the sexy girl in the blue bikini, the girl with the blue eyes and dark curls.
Nothing ever happened again between them. Fran had both hoped and feared that it would, had even wondered for a time if she’d made a mistake marrying Will. But Coop went back to treating her with a teasing affection that, while yes, was definitely flirtatious, never crossed any lines. And after a while, Fran began to wonder if she’d imagined the whole thing, that it was just some harmless flirting on a warm summer’s day.
And now, Fran thought, after fourteen years and two children, all traces of that girl in the blue bikini had disappeared. She wondered what Coop thought of her now that she was forty with tired eyes and a body that had never bounced back from childbirth, before realizing that of course he wouldn’t think of her. At some point, somewhere along the way to middle age, Fran had become invisible.
“Do you need help bringing in the groceries?” Mark asked. He sat at the kitchen table, one leg thrown casually over the other, iPhone in hand.
“No, this is the last of it,” Jaime said, as she heaved a green recyclable grocery bag up onto the Carrara marble countertop. “Where are the kids?”
“Playroom,” Mark said, his eyes on his phone.
Jaime could hear the distant sound of a Thomas the Train DVD. She pressed her lips together. Their children—Logan, three, and Ava, nearly two—were already far too familiar with the genre of animated talking trains. Every time Mark was home alone with the kids, he planted them in front of the television set.
“When was the last time you checked on them?” she asked.
“A few minutes ago,” Mark said vaguely, still scrolling through his messages.
Jaime headed to the playroom, just a short hallway down from the kitchen. Logan sat on the floor in front of the television, his eyes fixed on the screen, where Thomas the Tank Engine was getting a lecture from Sir Topham Hatt on the merits of being useful. Ava was curled up on the blue denim slip-covered sofa, her eyelashes curled down over rounded cheeks and her mouth slack with sleep.
“You okay, sweetheart?” she asked.
Logan, transfixed by the television, didn’t answer.
“You can finish this episode, but then we’re going to turn off the TV,” Jaime said.
Logan didn’t give any indication that he had heard her, and Jaime was reminded of his father. Is the addiction to electronic gadgets genetic? she wondered. Or learned? Either way, she might as well take advantage of the lull to put the groceries away.